How does one go about arguing that their version of Christianity is the “True Christianity”™? This is an epistemological and exegetical problem. I have discussed this previously with regard to Islam and its differences to Christianity in ‘“True Islam” and violent extremism – redux’ and “Islam vs Christianity: the core differences”, the latter which I will now quote:
Comparing the Provenance of Islam and Christianity
It starts with the holy books, the codification and revelation of said religions. With Christianity, we have the Bible, which is the ‘inspired word of God’. This can mean several things to different people. But, by and large, most Christians believe this to mean that the books, many and varied, were written by humans, though with some kind of divine inspiration. Perhaps not, though. The key is that it was mere humans that wrote things down, itself an interpretative process. This means that the reading of the holy book is itself a further interpretative process over and above the interpretative process of writing.
The Qu’ran, on the other hand, is THE word of God, dictated to Muhammad, and written down as is. You can’t argue with it, because you would be arguing directly with God. In fact, you really need to read it in Arabic, the original language of the book. Although there is some interpretative process going on in reading it, the scope is far less. We know who took down the dictation, and supposedly lots about him. With the Bible, we can merely guess at many of the writers, and critical scholarship allows us to be thoroughly skeptical about the received traditions of who supposedly wrote the books.
What this has meant is that the evolution of the religions has been quite different. And this has been the strength and weakness of both, too, as I will now explain.
Christianity has been able to evolve throughout its history. Its strength, in evolutionary or memetic terms, is its adaptability. It has been able to adapt to society, such that with scientific, technological, economic and moral progress, Christianity has adapted. We can see this empirically by the fact that there is supposedly some 42,000 denominations of the religion. There is a Christianity for everyone. If you hate gays or love gays; hate slavery or love it; hate capitalism or love it; hate socialism or love it – there is a Christianity for you.
Biblical criticism, especially since reformation times, has been and is encouraged, by and large. The interpretative process is a discipline, and exegetes and theologians disagree quite considerably with each other.
The flipside of this is that the religion of Christianity is somewhat, arguably, bastardised from its purest form, whatever that may be. It has been diluted to adapt to whatever prevalent school of thought requires such. As economics and morality have undergone huge zeitgeists, so too has Christianity. And this might be argued to be its weakness, too.
Islam, however, has been very different. Due to the nature of the holy book, Islam requires that society adapts to IT. Throughout history, Islam has remained a fairly monolithic construction (albeit with political schisms along the Sunni/Shia divide and with other intpertative schools – just fewer of them than with Christianity). For example, in the banking sector, or morally, within the context of its primarily theocratic domain, Islam has not particularly shifted. Lending is outlawed in certain forms, stoning and beheading seem to be still widely accepted in the same form it was (in many places). Sharia law often prevails, and secular Islamic countries are few and far between, if at all ever properly secular (e.g. Turkey).
What this means, in evolutionary or memetic terms, is that Islam requires the environment to adapt to it. It has very little adaptability, changing little in response to environmental constraints (yes, we can argue about fuzzy edges, but you get the picture). So its strength is that it appears a purer religion in comparison to Christianity, and in relation to its earlier forms. The evolution of Christianity against Islam produces two entirely different pictures: one a large, foliage-burdened tree of evolutionary worldviews, the other a more streamlined set of grasses, perhaps.
Islam needs a reformation, for sure, but I don’t think the holy book context really permits such a much-needed philosophical transformation.
The meaning of the word “Christian” and “Christianity”
As ever, much will depend on the meaning of the word(s) so that to stop anyone claiming to be a Christian (such as myself, for example) there has to be some minimum requirement. We might agree by dictionary consensus that, if I claim to be Christian, it at least means I am…
But this is open to a whole heap of subjective interpretation. What are the teachings? If I profess them but don’t do them, what then? If I claim them but don’t believe them deep down where no one else will know this, what then? What if I think the teachings are really left field in a way that is essentially unrecognisable from any other known Christianity as I use a crazy interpretative lens? Being “a believer in Christianity” becomes a circular definitional problem with no clear resolution. We get back to the definition of Christianity being:
- the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, or its beliefs and practices.
The most we can perhaps get from this is that a person who claims they are not a Christian(or who does not claim they are and bears no connection to Christianity) is not a Christian. And everyone else is somehow in…
As we can see, approaching something that looks like True Christianity is problematic and looks, then, to depend on whether you derive your religion and teachings from:
- the Bible as a revelatory text
- personal revelatory experiences
- extra-biblical, non-subjective sources (other books, artefacts etc.)
Or all of the above. And we can see some of the issues with 1. as stated in the preamble. Is religion subjective? Do we accept a postmodern approach whereby you make of Christianity what you want and that your truth is a truth? Or, on the other hand, is there something like an objective truth? Or, failing that, if there is no one particular truth, are some versions of Christianity just more wrong and more right than others even if there is no individual Christianity that represents True Christianity?
A True Christianity relies on a correct interpretation of the Bible – if not for all of it then at least some. For example, take Noah’s Flood: it either happened or it didn’t. There are five options for the Christian:
- It is a literal account that actually happened (that necessarily had theological significance A that you believe).
- It is a literal account that actually happened (that necessarily had theological significance ~A that you got wrong).
- It didn’t historically happen and has symbolic/theological meaning B that, if not the previous options, you believe.
- It didn’t historically happen and has symbolic/theological meaning ~B – dang, wrong again.
- It didn’t happen and it doesn’t have correct symbolic meaning and has erroneously turned up in the Bible. The usual Christian is well out.
Or different shades of these. We can not only be wrong about the literal accounts, we can be wrong about the theological interpretation. We also have an issue with the variety in the Bible: we could be right on Noah’s Ark but way off on slavery and the Atonement. It’s a very tall order to get a full-on True Christianity right, down to every jot and tittle.
This is where we get onto some serious epistemology, too.
Granted, this is my interpretation of truth (my truth about truth…). The problem for having a True Christianity (TC) is knowing that your TC is the TC. This is the case for any truth proposition. I defer to Descartes in that the only thing we can know is that you, the thinking entity (whatever that is) exists. Beyond that, it’s all probability.
Most people, intuitively at any rate, adhere to the correspondence theory of truth (I’m a bit of a mish-mash of theories, personally), whereby you think that truth is that some proposition you believe as true corresponds accurately and objectively to the world (outside your head). The problem here is you cannot know that your truth claim is correct (indubitably, at least). I don’t know I’m not a brain in a vat so I cannot indubitably know any other claim is true. How do I know if I have hit the target on Noah’s Ark if I can’t even know the outside world exists outside of an evil daemon injecting these ideas into my head as dreams?
Let’s then broadly accept this state of affairs (whoah! There are loads of issues we can have with this and lots of different epistemological theories, not least whether knowing needs to be indubitable – yes, agreed) and apply it to True Christianity.
I might be right in that my views on Noah’s Ark spot on correspond to an objective reality. I just can’t know this short of God coming down and telling me so. Even then, I could be imagining that or experiencing it in The Matrix. And even then, I am probably way out with regard to many of my other interpretations of the Bible.
And this, of course, depends wholly as to whether the Bible has divine sanction, that it really is the inspired word of God, that it is the best revelation and whose very best interpretation gets you to something approaching a True Christianity.
This is evidenced in what we see in the world around us such that there are 42,000 different denominations of Christianity and Christians at seminaries, universities, theological institutes, homes and churches are busily disagreeing with each other about what this or that means in the Bible – each and every day, for thousands of years.
I am an atheist, so there is no True Christianity.
But, if I was a Christian, it would depend on:
- The Bible being accurate.
- Any personal revelations of mine (or others who inform me) being accurate.
- Extra-biblical sources, whatever they might be, being accurate.
- Certain theologians and thinkers being accurate.
- Me being accurate in my interpretations of all of the above.
And this is a tall order. The chances of any individual Christian happening across a True Christianity is incredibly slim and they can never then know they have hit the jackpot. Certain sects, such as the Catholic Church, claim to have TC primacy but establishing this beyond reasonable doubt is tough because it really comes down to your exegetical approach to the Bible and the historical and theological claims therein. It depends on your axioms, as ever.
To refer back to Muslims and the Qu’ran, this is somewhat easier when you believe the holy book has the provenance that their one does, and you suck that up hook, line and sinker. Fully-fledged biblical literalists do this too and so they are probably in a more consistent position to thinking they have better access to TC since they align more obviously, prima facie, to the Bible. But if that axiom, that reliance on the revelation of the Bible, is erroneous in some way, then they might be way off the mark.
This is a minefield. And because it is a minefield, no Christian really agrees what Christianity truly is and so postmodernism seems all the more appealing. No independent arbitration looks particularly rationally steadfast and so we might as well accept (certainly from an atheist position) that anyone claiming to be a Christian is, indeed, a Christian (within reasonable definition of the word as accepted by consensus, itself problematic).
I find it easier to argue for a True Islam given the provenance of their holy book than I do for a True Christianity given the Bible is the sort of collection of books that it is.
There’s no such thing and even if there was it would be impossible to know if you had it right. But, still, I’m sure you’re right enough to go to heaven and Martin over there has the wrong version and he won’t go to heaven.
Which is why, if I had to be a Christian, I’d be a universalist.[And no, there are no true Scotsmen either, no matter how much porridge they eat.] [Also, I tried really hard not to mention the Sorites Paradox.]
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